Thinking In Public

May 31, 2023

The Christian Past in American Christianity — A Conversation with Professor Paul Gutacker

Transcript

Albert Mohler:

This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I'm Albert Mohler, your host and president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

Paul Gutacker is the executive director of the Brazos Fellows Program, and he's a lecturer in history at Baylor University. As director of the Brazos Fellows, Professor Gutacker oversees a residential fellowship for college graduates to deepen their study of Christian theology and history. He earned his PhD in history from Baylor University and has authored numerous peer-reviewed articles and essays. But today, we're going to be talking about his book, The Old Faith in a New Nation: American Protestants and the Christian Past. That book's the topic of our conversation today.

 

Paul Gutacker, welcome to Thinking in Public.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Thanks so much for having me.

 

Albert Mohler:

Your book is really fascinating, and I think the first question I want to ask is the genesis of the book. So, how exactly in working in American church history did you come up with using the idea of history as American denominations, for example, sought to define themselves?

 

Paul Gutacker:

Yeah, many stories I think of scholarship are both intellectual and personal, and I think that's true for me with this project. I grew up in Bible churches and Baptist churches and was always interested in this question of how Protestants understood themselves in relationship to the rest of the church and especially church history in part because this was just not something that my tradition growing up talked much about. So, as I started studying church history in college and then in grad school, one of my first questions was, where does Evangelical Protestantism, where does it locate itself in the story of the church?

I first started a precedent of that question by researching some 18th century Evangelicals who wrote church histories and who really wanted to recover the history of the church for Evangelicals in the early Evangelical movement. Then having done that, I started my study to Baylor in American religion. Because I had done this work on 18th century historians, I knew that Evangelicals had written church history. I knew that this was out there, but the more I read the scholarly literature on American religion and especially the ways in which American religion became more American in the 19th century, the second grade awakening and all this, I just couldn't find any sense, any reference really to the Christian past.

The assumption tended to be, well, of course, American Protestants had no time for that. They were looking forward, their eyes are to the frontier, and they're not looking back to Europe. They only need the Bible. They're forward looking, not bound to tradition in the past. Even the best scholarship, which I learned so much from on American religion, I think tended to assume in part because this was often what American Evangelicals said, that they had no tradition, that they didn't need history. But I suspected that this wasn't the whole picture precisely because I knew some of these historical works that had been written.

So, I started looking for them. Pretty quickly, I found in part to some of the new digital history tools that we have, I found just reference after reference hundreds, thousands of citations of church fathers, of medieval history, of particular historical works. It turns out it was everywhere. They read it all the time. They cared deeply about its significance.

 

Albert Mohler:

And argued about it.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Exactly.

 

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. My experience was different than yours. So, I grew up deep in the heart of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the first church history I ever read was—as a teenager, just ravenous to read anything, I went to a secondhand bookstore, which is where I could afford books, and I bought a church history. I thought, "I cannot wait to read this." I went home to read it, and it was a very pre-Vatican II Catholic history of the church.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Oh, wow.

 

Albert Mohler:

So I'm in an argument all of a sudden. So, this son of the Reformation is now in this argument. So, then I went to find another history, and it was a Landmarkist history. If you could as a 16 or 17-year-old get two books that would be in greater conflict, it was that Roman Catholic history of the church and this Landmarkist Baptist history of the church.

 

Paul Gutacker:

That's great.

 

Albert Mohler:

Frankly, what struck me is that even though I was not much of an academic historian at age 16, I could recognize that neither one of them is actually doing what I would consider to be academic history. They're making arguments with history.

 

Paul Gutacker:

That's right.

 

Albert Mohler:

You're really making an argument about arguments about history.

 

Paul Gutacker:

That's right. Yeah, I think that's exactly right. So, there was a strong sense, I think, among every denomination in the time period that I look at, which is roughly the revolution, end of the revolution through the Civil War, that the history had a meaning for the present and that history was on our side, especially church history. Whether that's a pretty negative take on church history, that it's mostly a story of corruption and human error and these sorts of things or another narrative, they're certainly using history. But what's interesting to me is that they didn't of course see it that way. They thought that they were being pretty objective.

 

Albert Mohler:

Well, they were by the standards of their day.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Sure, absolutely. They were erudite. I mean, often I realized I had moments of chagrin when I'm reading these sources and quibbling with them, they're better educated than I am by the standards of their day. They had read all of the literature there was to read. They had read church fathers in Latin and Greek. They were steeped in the best history they had. So, I think that's exactly right. They were doing probably the best they could. Now, there were some unquestioned assumptions that we might be able to see more clearly today that were harder for them to see, but they were serious. So, they weren't trying to be loosey-goosey with history. They weren't being flippant about it. They were quite serious about the study of it.

 

Albert Mohler:

I am speaking to you from Louisville, Kentucky, which is one giant geographical argument about church history and the seminary's right here in this beautiful established neighborhood. You go left or left, you're right into an argument in church history. If you go, right you're headed into Catholic territory. There it's not just a Catholic Protestant argument. It's an Irish Catholic versus German Catholic argument. But if you go the other way, the first major church other than a Catholic Church that you'll pass is a church that until the 19th century was a Baptist church. Now it's a Christian Church that is to say, as associated with actually the disciples of Christ in that case.

But there are many other churches, Christian churches, churches of Christ. So, you just look at all the arguments on one street here in Louisville. Yet when it comes to the Evangelicals, they were saying... We understand this, so this is an argument about history occasioned by your book, but many of the groups have said their sole authority for doctrine was the Bible. Actually, when they argued for their own denomination, they went right to church history.

 

Paul Gutacker:

That's right. I mean, it sounds like an irony there, but the logic is it becomes pretty widespread among almost every Protestant denomination, even some of the more traditionalist ones in the 19th century, to claim that they were relying on scripture alone and that they were primitive Christianity, that they represented the apostolic ideal in their denomination. So, of course, the disciples of Christ would say this, but I mean, you'll get Presbyterians saying this, you'll get Episcopalians arguing that Episcopalian religion is primitive Christianity.

 

Albert Mohler:

That one is a hard argument to make, but you're right. It was tempting.

 

Paul Gutacker:

What it comes down to is virtually everyone's in agreement that scripture is authoritative and it's divine. So, the question then becomes, well, how do you show your denomination as the faithful reader of scripture and the inheritor of scripture? You have to pretty quickly start talking about what Christians have said and done before you. Most of them, of course, share this Constantinian fall narrative that there is this pure pre-Constantinian church, which is the church of the martyrs and the persecuted and that after…

 

Albert Mohler:

The church of the gospel.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Exactly. After the church and the empire become more closely allied in the fourth century, you get a pretty steep decline into corruption and abuse of power. Of course, there's variance on that narrative. There'll be concern about the influence of Greek philosophy before Constantine and these things. But what this gets them into is basically, if there's something you like, if there's something that seems to support your denominational distinctives or your position on one of these big questions, women's roles or slavery or…

 

Albert Mohler:

Infant baptism.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Exactly. Anything that you can find in that history that seems to support your case, you can say, "Well, that's the pure ideal. Anything you don't like, that's the human corruption." There's plausible cases to be made sometimes on both sides of these questions. So, it becomes a pretty usable history precisely because there is a tacit agreement that a lot of it's corrupt, but underneath, you can find the faithful kernel.

 

Albert Mohler:

So I appreciated your book and have been looking forward to this conversation, but a part of me wants to press back long before the American context of your book and back into the area of a lot of my own academic work, which is if you go back to the 16th century, the reading of the magisterial reformers in particular Calvin and Luther, with Calvin more careful than Luther in this respect. There's a continuity and a discontinuity. The continuity was there. I mean, after the citations of scripture, it's Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux who are cited more than anyone else. So, Calvin's out to argue there is a continuous tradition. The Roman Catholic Church has abdicated that tradition and the gospel, but they're not trying to repudiate 15th centuries of church history.

They're trying to say this is a reform. Indeed, they're going back to Luther. It's not a reestablishment of the church. Luther would've had a heart attack over that. Christ established his church. But this is a reform of the church. Then just to test my thesis for a moment, if you go into the early Protestant period, with the exception of the anti-Baptist, you basically have arguments over who has the most tradition and who has the greatest claim to this continuity. Then you come to the United States and you really do have a very different context because here you have competition with all these churches in the colonies and then on the frontier.

So, at least a part of the way I see it is that these churches on the frontier and in the colonies, they were basically throwing every argument they could grab at one another, because there was a clear distinction between Baptist and the Methodists and on the frontier in particular and later the candlelight movements. But there's also a distinction in the cities with the Episcopalians and the others. So, is that the way you see it, that this was an American innovation of sorts?

 

Paul Gutacker:

I think that there's a lot to that. There's no question that the early reformers would've been, I think, pretty aghast to hear their great-grandchildren throwing out creed and confession and tradition becoming a swear word almost. I think you're right. Calvin especially is deeply read in the fathers and sees his project as in continuity with the church fathers and the great tradition. The question becomes then what changes in the American context and why? Of course, one of the big things in the backdrop, as you alluded to, is religious competition.

 

Albert Mohler:

Which wasn't possible in most of Europe.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Exactly, exactly.

 

Albert Mohler:

This is a new thing in the United States.

 

Paul Gutacker:

It's a new thing. Mark Noll has written so incredibly widely on this, but I think he does show that there is a kind of American approach to theology and scripture that is significantly different in character from European Protestants. It's more optimistic about all we need is common sense. It's a little more distrustful of received authority and tradition. It's combined with a lower R republican ideology. This means that Noll's reading, it's able to innovate, it's able to flourish. It's able to Christianize the nation in a remarkable degree. I mean, the project is remarkably successful and it really starts to fracture over the question of slavery and the Civil War in Noll's reading. I think he's pretty much entirely right about all that.

The question is, is this an actual change or is it just a rhetorical change? Because at the same time that a pastor or a professor or denomination will say, we are not relying on tradition, it's just the Bible for us that all the other denominations have been corrupted by humans. They'll then go on to cite this traditional author. I mean even Alexander Campbell, who you'd think would be the most serious about discarding church history and tradition, the very first edition of the Millennial Harbinger, he says, "We need church history. One of the biggest needs for this movement of restoration is a new account of the history of the church. We have to know this history. Other than the Bible, this is the most important thing to study."

Then even my favorite little anecdote is that he even cites Thomas Aquinas in defense of his view of baptism when he is in an argument. So, I think you're right. When push comes to shove, part of it is the argument. When push comes to shove in an argument, man, you'll bring anything in that'll help you win.

 

Albert Mohler:

Right. It's like a high school debating team.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Exactly.

 

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. Whatever's handy, you throw into the argument. But I do think it's telling that after scripture, history comes rather necessarily to the fore because you have to argue, "How did this doctrine get developed? How did this practice emerge and the history of the church?" I want to ask you a more fundamental question in historiography. Because your book of The Old Faith in a New Nation is really about historiography and even the history of historiography oddly enough in certain places. So, we talk about history as a discipline we understand, an academic discipline contested to be sure. But again, the history department's over there in that building, we think we know what they're up to. But church history was not a discipline. It became a discipline…

 

Paul Gutacker:

That's right.

 

Albert Mohler:

... really in the 19th century. It didn't start in the sense of a modern scientific historiography in the United States. It started in Germany, but it quickly shows up in arguments here. So, tell that story.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Yeah, that's a great point. Traditionally, we talk about discipline coming over from Germany with Philip Schaff and the Mercersburg theologians and the founding of the American Society of Church History and all this. That's definitely true.

 

Albert Mohler:

So why is that new? I'm just interrupting you, but in other words, why wasn't there a department of church history at Padua in the 11th century? Why was that necessary now? Why did it happen?

 

Paul Gutacker:

Yeah, why did it happen now? Oh man, that's a big question. You're right to start with the early history of reform and the first generation of Protestant reformers, because in some ways, it's a renaissance thing and it's a Protestant thing. It's a distrust of the recent past that gets folks like Calvin and Luther and Erasmus looking back at sources, recovering the original Hebrew and Greek, right? Yeah, exactly. So, that distrust of the recent past is built into, I think, both a Protestant approach to scripture and hermeneutics and also church authority, which is all bound up together, but also the rise of the modern academy. So, the particular form that the 19th century study of church history takes comes out of this German scientific approach to the past.

 

Albert Mohler:

Absolutely.

 

Paul Gutacker:

There's a way in which we can approach the past like we approach natural sciences that we can isolate variables, that we can understand the context and discern the immutable trees underneath often the languages as kernel and husk.

 

Albert Mohler:

But there's something fascinating there, isn't there? Because all of a sudden, you have these Germans and we can throw them under the bus for all kinds of reasons, including the liberal theology that came out and the fact that they thought they could apply everything to every discipline the same way, whether it's historiography or the scientific method, et cetera. But the Germans were onto this, and you hear this fantastic tale of the past. You hear that fantastic tale of the past. They clearly cannot both be true. It's possible that neither's true, but it really starts with an early confidence that there is some way to try to reconstruct the past. I mean, that's not a bad idea.

 

Paul Gutacker:

No, it's not. I feel of two minds about this because on the one hand, you have a desire for truths, right? You have a sense that truth matters so much that what we say about the past, what we teach about the past, it matters a lot that we get it right. That to me, I think, is a Christian impulse as well, right?

 

Albert Mohler:

Sure.

 

Paul Gutacker:

It's not just a modern one. But the tension there, the flip side is that I think the belief in Christ's promise to build his church is also a matter of faith. It's a matter of trusting Christ's promise. So, there is a skepticism that you see, especially in the 18th century, toward everything that's been believed about the church's past, especially the Catholic past, the importance of a deep-rooted, not just a disagreement with Catholicism, but an antipathy, a real hatred of everything Catholic, that I think leads to a pretty corrosive skepticism.

You'll often see in one generation the skepticism that's applied to the history of the church and the next generation be applied to scripture itself. You can see the logic of this. If Christ's promise to build this church has failed for most of the Christian past, then it makes you question the root of the whole thing.

 

Albert Mohler:

But that is not the way the reformers would've made the argument as you know.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Exactly. Yeah, exactly. That's not the only Protestant approach, and it's certainly not the only Protestant answer to the questions and problems posed by Christian history. I mean, I think the desire to get at the truth, to get beneath the myth and the fable and the outright corruption is commendable. Often the skepticism that takes can be, I think, really corrosive. Frankly, I mean when I get at this at the end of the book, but just the unquestioned assumptions, like the notion of, for example, the dark ages that medieval Europe was…

 

Albert Mohler:

The lights are out.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Exactly, ignorance and superstition. We now know that this is a very flawed historical view of medieval Europe and we can see more clearly how much that was conditioned by anti-Catholicism. But this is just so assumed it's not even need to be argued in the time period I'm looking at. Everyone knows that this is true.

 

Albert Mohler:

But speaking of Catholicism, by the time you get to the 19th century, the Roman Catholic Church has made the study of history, at least in church institutions, absolutely under the control of the Magisterium. So, in other words, the Catholic Church has an investment in how this story is told.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Absolutely. Absolutely. That's right. Just to go back to a part of your prior question about what changes the 19th century, really church history is the domain of the seminaries. The goal of seminary education in church history is to really help solidify your conviction that fill in the blank, Presbyterian or Baptist or Methodist theology is correct. So, it's in service of denominational formation. That doesn't mean, again, that they're not serious. That doesn't mean they're uncritical. They're often really wrestling with the sources they have. They're asking hard questions about, "Do we know if this is true or not?"

But it is in service of shoring up denominational identity. When the Germans emerge in the 1840s and 1850s, Baptists and Presbyterians and reformed folks, they're quite panicked about this and they start saying, "We need to do better. We need to create our own standards for church history and our own research. We need to invest in institutions."

 

Albert Mohler:

We got to hire people.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Exactly. So, you can see that there's a lot at stake. Everyone knows that this is not just an academic exercise, that there is a real crisis if these Protestant assumptions about church history start to be questioned.

 

Albert Mohler:

But in terms of the Protestant world and as the new world is appropriating the scholarly works of even the old world, there's only one book of church history or fairly early in the 19th century. I just think that's shocking to people. There's one book and everybody's got to use it until other people write new books.

 

Paul Gutacker:

More or less, yeah.

 

Albert Mohler:

Tell the story of that one book.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Yeah. The main one is this Lutheran church history written by Johann Lorenz von Mosheim. It's a pretty balanced approach for its day. He's friends with a lot of the German enlightenment folks, but he wants to remain more or less true to Orthodox Lutheranism. He's trying to strike a middle ground there. He's trying to explain the history of the church as much as he can by cause and effect, by context to recover the human side of the story and not just say everything was providence and there's no other explanation, but he's not trying to be radically skeptical either. So, he writes this. It's translated into English first by dissenter in England. It's really the primary textbook that's going to be used for a few generations in American…

 

Albert Mohler:

Virtually everywhere.

 

Paul Gutacker:

... seminaries. Virtually everywhere. Not everybody likes it. A lot of complaints about his Lutheranism sneaking in. Sometimes folks like Samuel Miller at Princeton will pair this with Joseph Milner, who's the Evangelical Anglican historian. Milner's history is much more pious in the sense that he's just trying to inspire your faith. So, Milner's looking at the past and saying, "Hey, Bernard loved Jesus, you can tell. So, I don't like what he says about these things, but he clearly knew and loved Christ."

Samuel Miller at Princeton will say, "You get a lot of good critical stuff from Mosheim here, but he doesn't have the warmth and doesn't have the feeling that you'd like. It's not as edifying." So you throw in a little bit of Milner. But in his notes on his lectures, Miller will say, "Neither of these are really adequate. We need a better Protestant history." When the German stuff starts coming over in the '40s and '50s, August Neander, his works are translated, that gets picked up. But it's really interesting how you'll get complaints from virtually all sides that the Protestant historiography is lacking and nobody knows really what to do about it for a few generations.

 

Albert Mohler:

I think it's astounding that more significant works in church history were not written during that period, because during this interdenominational competition, which was just raging, just doing it everywhere, you would think someone would've stopped and say, "Hey, we better assign somebody to write a good two or three volume history of the church in order to make our argument." But that doesn't emerge actually, at least in Baptist life, really until the end of the 19th century. Frankly, it's still pretty embryonic until you get to the 1920s. Pretty much the same thing in some other denominations, but from Mosheim... Let me just ask you to move to Philip Schaff, because I think that's a big part of the story.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Yeah, that's right. Just on that point, I think this is part of why Landmarkism gets such a following is because there's not a lot of other compelling alternatives.

 

Albert Mohler:

They can give you a chart.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Exactly.

 

Albert Mohler:

They can map everything out. Good guys, bad guys, above the line, below the line.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Yeah. That's exciting stuff.

 

Albert Mohler:

Not that I ever heard that when I was a young person.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Schaff is really interesting because he appears to many to be undermining the whole project because his vision of church history is more organic. So, he sees church history unfolding from the era of the apostles through the rise of the papacy in Catholicism into the Reformation. He sees the Reformation as an outgrowth of medieval Catholicism, and in a lot of ways the fulfillment of it. He actually thinks that where the whole project is going is in the future and he comes to believe in America, a unified church that has both Peter and Paul that sees a reconciliation and a recovery of Christian unity. So, it's this very Romantic, capital R Romantic, very German organic. It feels Hegelian to me.

 

Albert Mohler:

It is exactly Hegelian precisely in its structure.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Yeah. So, there's a lot of concern that he's really a closet Catholic. There's charges of heresy brought. When he's teaching at Mercersburg Seminary, in one semester, he assigns some John Henry Newman to be read, and a number of students quit the seminary and protests. They drop out rather than read Newman.

 

Albert Mohler:

It could be dangerous stuff in that context, I would add. Quite explosive.

 

Paul Gutacker:

As a seminarian, Newman can lead you all kinds of places, but Schaff's more careful readers, including the Princeton folks, Miller and the others there, they don't agree with everything he says, but they see that he's onto something that this is not just a closet Catholic. What he's trying to do is understand the actual development of things, and rather than see Luther and Calvin as the first moderns or something like this, that he's recovering the sense in which they come out of the church and they come out of this medieval tradition that they're steeped in. I really like Schaff.

 

So, again, he feels pretty anachronistic to read now, but he's able to do his work with the conviction that the church's history is essential to her mission. As much as he's a scholar, he's a pastor who sees that understanding and loving the church with all its foibles and flaws in the past is essential to loving it today. There's something I think compelling about that, even though I'm not going to get on board with all of his readings of the various moments in church history.

 

Albert Mohler:

Theologically, I'm not commending Philip Schaff at all, but in terms of history, a couple things that I would note. Number one, he's actually interesting. He's a much better narrator than say Mosheim.

 

Paul Gutacker:

That's right.

 

Albert Mohler:

This Hegelian background actually gives him a pretty good framework to tell a narrative.

 

Paul Gutacker:

That's right.

 

Albert Mohler:

Philip Schaff's work is still in print today, is still available today. It's also interesting to me that as president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, you go back to the birth of this institution. I was pleased to see you made reference to this in your book. When James Petigru Boyce, our founder, in 1856 delivers that address, three changes in theological education, one of the big points he made is that we've got to win this church history argument. That needs to be a part of the theological curriculum.

 

Paul Gutacker:

That's right. For Boyce, it's right up there. Again, as we already said, it's right up there with the study of scripture. Right behind really understanding scripture is this need and here's where Boyce is interesting. He's right at the crux of this change, not just to plug our ears and say, "Don't read Newman and Schaff," but to say we need our own research. We need to get to the sources ourselves.

 

Albert Mohler:

He had all of those books in his personal library and they became the core of the seminary's collection. So, he was unafraid for students to read widely, but he also wanted them to read in a way that was directed by the faculty.

 

Paul Gutacker:

I didn't know that about his library in the seminaries. That's great. That's not surprising. Schaff and the other German historiography and the Oxford movement, which doesn't play a big role in this story, but it's in the backdrop, these set off alarm bells. I think Baptists aren't alone in saying we really need to devote institutional resources to this, to not be easily captivated by these other theories.

 

Albert Mohler:

Boyce in the Southern Baptist context, he gets buffeted from two different directions. The second one really doesn't show up in 1856 or even in 1859 when the school was founded. That becomes Landmarkism. That is not really on his screen in 1856, but the claims of an enlightenment history matched to what he saw as a theological liberalism that was spreading within the theological academy. He saw history as a necessary apologetic.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Yeah, that's right. There's a sense in which this is always the opportunity with history is it appears at least to get at something empirical that we can disagree about interpretation, but the facts are the facts. Of course, this is more complicated than we can't always agree on the facts, but there is a sense in which it allows a way through some of these or at least it promises this way through. As you know, by the end of the book, I'm a little bit pessimistic about this, that history actually didn't tend to do this for people.

That as much as I think history matters and as much as I believe in reading history as essential and teaching good history, that we tend to I think sometimes to be a little too optimistic that history has the definitive answer for all of our questions. If we would just be in good faith about it, the right view of prevailing, it turns out that often that's not how it's worked.

 

Albert Mohler:

Right. Don't we know that now on contemporary discussion about history?

 

Paul Gutacker:

Absolutely.

 

Albert Mohler:

You see all this back to the fore. But I want to go back to the origins of church history as a discipline because it's really made very much a part of the Southern Seminary curriculum going back to the founding. It's really put under church government, but it emerges as a distinct field. We have one of the oldest endowed chairs in church history anywhere. I do think that that's a big jump. You wouldn't have found the same thing 100 years before at all. Now, everybody's got to have an historian.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Yeah, that's right. My sense of why that's happening in the 1850s is related to the dissatisfaction that we talked about with prior Protestant history. So, that Mosheim's just not going to cut it anymore. A concern with the German romantics and the Enlightenment, but also by then a real concern with Catholicism, right? Catholicism by 1850 appears to actually have a foothold in the US in a way that it didn't a generation before.

 

Albert Mohler:

Much more concerned in the North at that time than in the South.

 

Paul Gutacker:

But also in the West. That will we now say the Midwest, right? So Ohio, for example, it's quite concerning. Lyman Beecher write A Plea for the West. He's saying, "These Catholics are beating us to the frontier and they're founding schools and they're educating our young." So I think that's another piece there. The research around it or research that comes from this in these institutions, it's still defensively Protestant, but I think it is aiming to do something that's more substantial than what you saw in the 18th century.

What's interesting to me is and I'm getting a little bit out of my field here because I'm mostly a 19th century historian, but it does seem that if you jump forward a century to the mid-20th century, into more recent Evangelical history in America, that some of that interest had waned. Not on an institutional level, it's not as if church history stopped being taught in seminaries, but it seems, at least to me... This is anecdotal, I suppose, because I'm again not a historian of the 20th century. ... that church history doesn't matter as much in the last 50 years of American Evangelicalism as it did in my time. Maybe that's because the controversies then brought us to the fore, but it seemed like there was more of a commitment historically among Evangelicals to really invest in church history.

 

Albert Mohler:

Well, I think we have two big problems in Evangelicalism, we might just say, but the Evangelical Academy. One is that so much of the renaissance of historical interest was in particular of what we would call modern church history and specifically in the United States. Entire congress of faith and history and the whole approach is rising, which by the way was parallel to a rise in Christian philosophy in the academy with Alvin Plantinga and so many others. But what was really missing from that was historical theology in terms of say, history of doctrine. Also, there just wasn't a lot of Reformation history. I think there's a lot of Reformation history going on at Princeton far more than is going on among Evangelicals.

 

Paul Gutacker:

That's right. Yeah. I think that's a good point. I think there is something that when the past is being discussed, it's the more recent past, it's the American past.

 

Albert Mohler:

It's where the controversies are hotter right now.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Exactly. Yeah. Maybe there's always exceptions to this, but it does seem like your average Evangelical minister, seminary trained minister in say 1850 was much more steeped in the whole history of the church and in the church fathers even than you might find in the last half century or so. But again, that's anecdotal. I don't know.

 

Albert Mohler:

Yeah. From my vantage point, I would say, I think to push back on that a little bit, I would move that back to 50 years that began to change 25 years ago. So, go back 75 years, I think the first 50 years, that was true. But I mean, nowadays, you look at, for example, even Evangelical publisher such as Crossway, and not to mention Zondervan, Eerdmans, and you just go down the list, there's a lot of historical work. There's a lot of work in terms of the Apostles' Creed and Reformation history.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Your own book.

 

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, exactly. That would've been unthinkable 30 or 40 years ago. So, anyway, I'm just saying I think there's a real hunger among younger Evangelicals for a deeper historical sense of rootage.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Absolutely.

 

Albert Mohler:

I think that's a very good thing, but I don't think it came out of nowhere.

 

Paul Gutacker:

It didn't come out of nowhere. I think you're right. I think that way of narrating the chronology works. I think that hunger, sometimes the sense, well, we don't have this, so I have to go find it somewhere else in orthodoxy or in Roman Catholicism. This is part of the loss that Evangelical, a lack of attention to tradition.

 

Albert Mohler:

It's the Evangelical self-harm.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Exactly. Yeah. In some ways, my book slightly, I don't think I say this explicitly, but Newman of course said, "To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant." I'm trying to show that just on an empirical level, that's not the case. That Protestants were as deeply steeped as you can be. That doesn't mean the readings of it were right at every point or that there wasn't bias involved or there weren't problems, but historically, it's been the case that Evangelicals and Protestants in general deeply cared about the past and cared about tradition. There's no reason why that can't continue.

 

Albert Mohler:

You do not say this in your book, so I may be just mischaracterizing your argument, but it seems to me there's no little irony in the fact that when you look at the Restorationists' movements and the primitives arguments that emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they're denying the importance of history while making arguments 24/7 about history. Even in trying to argue against whether it's apostolic succession or an organic continuity of the church, they're making historical arguments all the time. I was born into that just in terms of understanding church history. There's this line of faithfulness, the whole idea of that continuity.

Of course, it included an awful lot of people who we would not want to include knowing what we know about them now, but there was an impulse behind it to say, "This is the true church." Like I say right here in Louisville, Kentucky, here in the Kentucky frontier, the battle between the Baptist argument and the Restorationists argument was massive. The history of the churches right along the street shows it.

 

Paul Gutacker:

That's right. There is some irony there. I mean that this is one of the ironies is that at the same time, you would have to say, we're getting around church history back to the primitive ideal. You'd have to use a whole lot of church history to try to show that and defend that. I think a similar irony with saying, I'm relying only on scripture. To prove it, I'm going to quote some church fathers to you. So, there's a sense in which all this shows is that it's impossible to be without a tradition. This is what it means to be human. It's what it means to be any Christian. So, the question is not whether or not you have that sense of history or tradition, but where did it come from and what does it rely on?

 

Albert Mohler:

I was helped by reading in Anglican when I was in my early 20s, who said, the claim of Sola Scriptura must not be confused with the claim of Scriptura Nuda.

 

Paul Gutacker:

That's right.

 

Albert Mohler:

Scripture alone is the sole final authority, but no one reads the scripture without being traditioned.

 

Paul Gutacker:

That's right. This is at least a base level for then moving forward in how then do we discern a faithful tradition from an unfaithful one and these sorts of questions. I think there's something happening in the 1800s, especially maybe the first 50 or 60 years of the century where there's quite a bit of rhetorical advantage to be had by saying, "Look, I didn't get this from anywhere but scripture," and bringing in historical authorities along the way didn't seem to register as a contradiction to that. So, I think there was certainly an anti-tradition ethos. The question is, is what they said what they did? I mean, they certainly cared deeply about scripture and studied it very carefully.

 

Albert Mohler:

I think legitimately believe they were Biblicist. In other words, of course, I'm going to stake my life on solo scriptura. But again, that does not mean that we're reading scripture as if we don't know anything about how scripture has been read.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Exactly. That's exactly right. Scripture is still central, of course, and you can at least in theory, change someone's mind if you can show them what scripture says doesn't agree with what…

 

Albert Mohler:

Isn't that what's happening? This is where I'm thinking, "Okay, I'm reading what Professor Gutacker's doing here." I can see a parallel project of making this same argument, American political discourse. Licking at the arguments, especially with the looming crisis between the north and the south, you have two rival histories going on here.

 

Paul Gutacker:

That's right.

 

Albert Mohler:

You have rival histories of democracy going on here and histories of the republic. So, everybody's arguing history and right down to the headlines of today's newspaper.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Exactly. That's right. So, it's interesting because there's this stereotype of Americans being disinterested in history. I mean, history is arguably the most read and argued over a subject in my time period and continues to be. I mean, the claims about the past that are made within five minutes of any given talk show or newsfeed, it's always there. I mean, this is part of what can be exciting about teaching history when I do at Baylor or when I do at the Brazos Fellows, is that we get the chance to learn some tools for thinking critically about that. But I think you see in a lot of people in exhaustion about this as well, we can't really know and everyone has their version of it.

So, throw up your hands and walk away. Unfortunately, the way in which history has become so politicized and so partisan and the activists on both sides using history, this tends to lead to everyone reading history with a sense of this has some implication for issue X. That can be an impatience with history. I think we need to be able to make connections between the past and the present and talk about implications. We also need to show a patience to the past where it might surprise us, where it might not say exactly what we hoped it would say, where its meaning won't be immediately useful in a given argument. A lot of the uses of history that I look at in the book, I think many of them at least were impatient uses of history.

 

Albert Mohler:

Sure, but instructive in the runway, right? I mean, one of the surprises in your book for me was the extent to which women in American church history were writing explicitly historical works.

 

Paul Gutacker:

That's right.

 

Albert Mohler:

That really has not been, I think, well-known or well-documented. So, what was behind that? Why was there a particular impulse among American Christian women to make these arguments about history?

 

Paul Gutacker:

Yeah, I think there's a few things there. One is that history had been seen for a few generations as particularly important for educated young women, that history teaches moral truths through example, that history gives you a sense of what you're supposed to do. It inspires, it enlivens. So, American women to the extent that there's a significant investment in women's education and American history, I mean, this is one of the ways in which America truly is exceptional in the 19th century, much higher rates of female literacy than anywhere else in the world.

 

Albert Mohler:

Even on the frontier.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Oh, yeah, absolutely. Half of the academies by 1850 are for women. I mean, it is really remarkable the degree of education of American women. That's fed in a lot of ways by Evangelicals, by the Puritan legacy of valuing scripture by Evangelical missionary movements. So, scripture is preeminent. Women need to know the Bible, but also, they really need to know history to be a republican mother, to raise good citizens. So, you already have that. Then what you see happening around the 1830s is new attention to there have been women in the Christian past, it turns out. It's not just a history of men. In fact, behind those men, behind the Augustines and the Gregorys, the Constantines, there are these mothers and wives.

 

Albert Mohler:

The Martin Luthers, for crying out loud.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Exactly.

 

Albert Mohler:

Katie is the first spouse routinely featured in the paintings of her husband in this case. You see Martin and Katie together in a way that broke the rules.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Just to flag, my colleague, Sam Young, has just finished his dissertation on Martin Luther in America precisely. You'll want to look for this one, I'm sure.

 

Albert Mohler:

Yeah, I'm interested already. Yeah. I have to tell you, you mentioned the creation of these female schools or schools for young mind. They were often called seminaries, which is a far more generic term. That leads me to something I don't think I've ever said in public before as we're Thinking in Public. I received a letter back when we received letters, people wrote people on paper. I've been in this office long enough that I've seen that transition. I got a letter, which meant there's no immediately way to respond.

The letter asked me with great offense, "Why in the world Southern Seminary had an equestrian team? What kind of use was this of good Baptist money to be training preachers that we have an equestrian team?" Now, that led to a certain crisis in my mind, because I did not know we had an equestrian team. It turns out, by the way, that of course we do not, but a school called Southern Seminary, which is one of those antebellum schools for the education of young women in Virginia, has a prize-winning equestrian team.

 

Paul Gutacker:

That's amazing.

 

Albert Mohler:

It just goes to show that history can come around and bite you at times.

 

Paul Gutacker:

That's right. That's right.

 

Albert Mohler:

The timetable of your book, and I recognize this is rooted in your research, so you don't bring this up to 2023. You really end with the crisis of the Civil War. I understand that as a breaking point, because for one thing, you've got to write an entirely different history of the United States after 1865 or so. But just tell us how history and argues about church history factored into that sectarian divide between the North and the South before the war.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Yeah, I mean, this is in a lot of ways the heart of the project, which is why there's a few chapters that deal with this. But both sides are convinced they're on the right side of church history. So, by the time you get to the 1850s, certainly once the denominations are all splintering in the 1840s and the Presbyterians again in 1957, there's an increasing sense on both sides that Christians throughout time have been with us on this question. So, from the pro-slavery side, citations of various church fathers of councils, minor and major councils, just to sense, Christians throughout time have enslaved people. That if this was out of bounds, if this was immoral in principle, then Christ would've made it more clear in scripture.

On the other hand, an abolitionist argument or even an anti-slavery argument that's a little milder will point to the ameliorating effect of Christianity on slavery, will point to the virtual disappearance of it and medieval Christendom and will say, "This is what Christianity has always done." So there's a little bit of a spirit and letter difference there, the letter of the Christian past versus the spirit. Which trajectory is it on versus what can we pinpoint? But this just, I think, encourages both sides to be sure that not only does the other side get scripture wrong, but they're just denying the plain facts of Christian. They're standing against the force of Christian history. I think it makes both sides less likely to be able to actually reason together to come to some kinds of agreement.

I think it deepens the divide. So, there are some readings of the theological crisis of slavery that seem to suggest the problem was that they just used the Bible only. In fact, I think church history being introduced into the debate, which it really is from 1840 on, it's a prominent part of the argument between pro and anti-slavery Christians. I think it made the debate more intractable. I think it made things much more difficult in some ways, because it just strengthened the conviction that each side had, that theirs was a holy cause.

 

Albert Mohler:

Well, I did find your book fascinating. With twists and turns, it made me think of many other books I would assign you to write just based upon what you did in this volume. But that does lead me to ask, so what are you working on now?

 

Paul Gutacker:

Yeah, I'm interested in, I did a little bit of this in this book, but how Protestants look back to the saints of the past. We have exemplars. We have heroes. How are they alike and different from how Catholics do saints? And particularly interested in the Christian women. So, Monica, the mother of Augustine, she is a huge hit in the 19th century. I mean, Evangelicals love her story. It's got all the things they like, right? The tears, the prayer, the wayward son. She dies. It has the sentimental…

 

Albert Mohler:

Well, so many Evangelicals would suggest that her piety is exactly what should be emulated. Look, it's very sweet. I'm not arguing against it at all. I'm just saying she prayed for the conversion of her son and God honored her prayer.

 

Paul Gutacker:

That's right.

 

Albert Mohler:

That's the way Christian mother should pray.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Absolutely. I mean, we see this in some Puritan sermons and George Whitfield sermons, but it really booms in the 19th century. So, I want to look at that. I want to write a book about how Protestants remember her and try to use that as a way to understand, "What do the saints of the past do for Protestants? How do they inspire? How do they serve as exemplars?" So hopefully, we'll see that. It's not under contract. It's still very much a work in progress, but hoping to see that come out sometime soon.

 

Albert Mohler:

Well, they do come out one at a time, and I'll look forward to that one when it comes out. I've enjoyed this conversation and would look forward to one on that book when it comes out.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Well, thanks so much, Dr. Mohler. I really appreciate your good questions and having me on.

 

Albert Mohler:

Well, Paul Gutacker, again, thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.

 

Paul Gutacker:

Thanks so much for having me.

 

Albert Mohler:

Many thanks to my guest, Paul Gutacker, for thinking with me today. If you enjoyed today's episode of Thinking in Public, you'll find more than 150 of these conversation at albertmohler.com under the tab, Thinking In Public.

For more information on the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.

Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public. Until next time, keep thinking.

 

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